MANKATO, Minn. — For the third time in four seasons the WCHA’s MacNaughton Cup belongs to Minnesota State.
The Mavericks defeated Bemidji State 2-1 Friday night at Verizon Center to officially claim the cup as their own. They went into the weekend needing two conference points to clinch the hardware.
“That trophy’s hard to win,” Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings said after the game. “I’m very happy for the guys because of the work that they’ve done and they’ve put themselves in a good position. Tonight, they found a way to get it done.”
The Mavericks made short order of a power play they received late in the second period when Dallas Gerads put home a rebound to grab the lead for Minnesota State. The goal came a dozen seconds after Aaron Miller was sent to the box for kneeing and would end up being the game-winner.
“It doesn’t shock me that (Gerads) made a contribution tonight because he’s a guy that’s willing to get in those areas,” Hastings said of the freshman fourth-liner. “As hard as (Bemidji State) plays and as hard as they defend, you’ve got to have some guys that are willing to get into those high-traffic areas and pay a price to get a second or a third opportunity.”
A rare Daniel Brickley mistake opened the door for Bemidji State to grab the lead at the 8:55 mark of the first period. The senior defenseman turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Kyle Bauman and Jay Dickman skated into the offensive zone two-on-one. Dickman finished off a one-time pass for his 14th goal of the season.
Goaltender Connor LaCouvee blamed himself for the goal after the game, but the Boston University graduate transfer was brilliant throughout the night. He ended the game with 26 saves, including two huge saves in the second period, and only Dickman’s goal allowed.
“If we’re going to be a championship team I think the guys and myself and everyone needs to realize that we need that type of effort every night,” Lacouvee said after the game. “We need to repeat the process tomorrow and every game from here on out is playoff hockey.”
Bemidji State returned the favor in the second period with a turnover of its own. Zeb Knutson stole the puck near center ice and sent Marc Michaelis on a semi-breakaway. The sophomore put a backhanded-shot though Michael Bitzer’s five hole.
The goal also woke up a crowd that was being lulled into a slumber by Bemidji State’s defensive prowess.
“That’s a turning point,” Hastings said of Michaelis’ goal, noting that it was similar to the goal Bemidji scored off of a turnover in the first period. “I thought Zeb Knutson did a great job of showing some incredible poise, waiting and finding a way to get the puck to Marc and Marc doing what Marc does, he finished.
“And all of a sudden, the building is lit,” he added. “And all of a sudden there’s some electricity. I thought we fed off of that, I thought that allowed us to get a little bit more energy on the bench.”
There was no scoring in the third period, but there were some tense moments. Both Bitzer and LaCouvee stopped multiple chances to keep the score the same. LaCouvee had a shot get thorough his legs with less than five minutes left in the period but enough momentum had been taken off the puck to prevent it from going over the goal line. The net minder then used his pads to fling the puck away from the goal and back into play.
“I just kind of lost sight of the puck and then they fired a pretty good shot,” Lacouvee said. “It hit my stick kind of awkwardly and went in between my legs. I didn’t think it was a goal because I feel we probably would have heard more celebrating as well as I thought I kind of hit it out with my back leg, but it was a scary moment for sure.”
Hastings said that the consensus on the bench was that there wasn’t a goal, despite the fact that it was reviewed at the next stoppage of play. He was also very complimentary of the way both goaltenders played.
“Michael Bitzer, I’ll respect forever just because of as long as I’ve seen him play in the league he’s been one of the best not only in our league but in the country,” Hastings said about the opposing goaltender. “But I think Connor LaCouvee is a pretty good goaltender, also. He’s shown that throughout this season.”
Bitzer ended the game with 32 saves. The two teams will finish off their series in Mankato Saturday night.
“We’ll go back to business tomorrow,” he said. “You’ve got to appreciate what just happened. We’ll do that tonight and we’ll probably do a little, regardless of what happens tomorrow, we’ll do some things on Monday to make sure we celebrate what happened and then move onto the playoffs.”